How Ice Fishing Suddenly Got Hot

PHOTO: Michel Brunet braves the cold weather for a morning of ice fishing on the Saint Lawrence River along the shores of Montreal on Jan. 8, 2014.PlayPaul Chiasson/The Canadian Press/AP Photo
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intro: Who likes ice? Ice fishermen.

With much of the U.S. frozen over, and with ice forming in places it hasn't formed for years (if ever), ice fishermen are in heaven. That's translating into brisk business for merchants like Russ Francisco, owner of Marine General Supply in Duluth, Minn.

On General Supply's website, next to many a pricey new ice-fishing accessory -- a pop-up shelter ($1,000), a powered ice augur ($570), an underwater fish-spotting sonar camera ($1,080) -- are the words: "SOLD OUT FOR THE SEASON."

According the American Sportfishing Association, about $260 million was spent on ice fishing in 2012, up almost 10 percent from the year before. Of all gear categories, says the ASA, augurs and shelters account for the most sales, at $85 million and $73 million, respectively.

When ABC News contacted Francisco this week, the midday temperature in Duluth was 25 below. The northern tier, he said, was enjoying a bumper crop of ice. "But every place has ice this year," he said. "We're getting orders all the way from Indiana."

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Other factors besides the record cold explain why ice fishing is hot. What used to be a masochistic, all-male exercise, in what the Duluth News Tribune calls "suffering and endurance," has been transformed into a comfy, warm, civilized pastime enjoyed by men and women alike. According to a 2012 survey done for ASA by Southwick Associates, ice anglers were more likely to be under 18 years of age than anglers in general.

"It's all about the equipment," Francisco says. "The fishing houses are warmer, they're easier to set up and take down." Augurs powered by propane, gas or electricity make boring through the ice a breeze. Heaters are better than they used to be, ditto rods and reels. Insulated, waterproof suits ensure you'll survive if you fall through the ice, provided your friends don't linger in fishing you out. Sophisticated video and sonar systems for snooping on fish look like implements the National Security Agency would like to have.

Yet despite all the nifty, sometimes pricy gear, ice fishing remains a proposition cheaper than summer fishing, for the simple reason that, to do it, you don't need to have a boat.

Herewith, a smattering of ice fishing gear and gizmos -- all from Marine General's online catalog, unless otherwise noted.

quicklist: title: Clam X4 Ice Shelter category: $999.99 media: 22284820 text: The Fish Trap X4 is built with aluminum tubing and ultra tough 900 Denier Fabric. Seats four. Includes emergency tool kit.

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quicklist: title: Fish 13 Black Betty Ice Combo category: $59.99 media: 22270268 text: Solid graphite rod, stainless steel guides with polished inserts, right- or left-hand interchangeable reel.

quicklist: title: StrikeMaster Honda 35cc Lite Auger category: $569.99 media: 22270396 text: Drill, baby, drill! Signature steel drill with Mora Ice Lazer Blades is powered by 4-stroke OHC engine. Weight 23 pounds. Oil is encapsulated.

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quicklist: title: Clam IceArmor Edge Cold Weather Suit category: $199.99 media: 22270489 text: Two-piece suit features ballistic nylon knee, two-zipper pockets at the hip (one passing through the inside) and reflective piping for safety.

quicklist: title: Aqua Vu Inderwater LED Floodlight category: $19.99 media: 22270542 text: Attaches to most underwater cameras. Requires three AAA batteries.

quicklist: title: Striker Ice Predator Jacket (Floating) category: $179.95 media: 22270589 text: What to wear if you're going to be falling through the ice, the jacket features 100g Thermadex insulation and Sureflote floatation-assist liner. "This is not a wimpy shell suit," says the manufacturer. (Price quoted is as bought directly from manufacturer.)

quicklist: title: Marcum LX-9 Sonar and Camera System category: $1,079.99 media: 22270667 text: Sonar features adjustable ping rate, infinitely adjustable zoom and Fish ID with depth. Comes complete with snow shield.

quicklist: title: Humminbird ICE-597 ci HD Combo category: $619.99 media: 22270723 text: Combo features brilliant color display with LED backlight, dual beam sonar and 50 channel internal GPS chartplotting with built-in UniMap.